“Welcome to the 48th, 49th, and 50th AFI Life Achievement Awards,” American Film Institute President and CEO Bob Gazzale stated as he began his welcoming remarks for Thursday night’s long awaited and long pandemic- delayed tribute to Julie Andrews, the 2022 honoree at a ceremony originally set to take place in the spring of 2020 that now finally happened with all style and warmth so familiar to these AFI evenings ever since AFI founder George Stevens Jr. came up with the idea in 1973 when director John Ford was the first honoree (Stevens, now 90, was there and acknowledged from the stage last night). Since then there has never been a “gap” between cereomonies but now there is between 2019 honoree Denzel Washington and Andrews, but it was well worth the wait, and congratulations to the AFI, Board Trustees Chairs Kathleen Kennedy and Bob Daly as well as Gazzale (who is also Executive Producer of the show which will air on TNT June 16 at 10pm) for not letting Covid diminish the event, even if it had to come a little later than usual,and every member of the audience at the Dolby Theatre (transformed into a banquet setting for the elegant dinner) had to take a PCR test at least 48 hours before entering the building. Other than that it was just like old times and you could tell the industry crowd was thrilled to be there for a genuine show business legend. The only sad part was that Andrews’ The Sound Of Music co-star Christopher Plummer was not there. The Oscar winning actor had actually been set to appear at the tribute when it was originally to take place before the pandemic had other ideas. He died in Feburary of last year at age 91.
As you might expect however that iconic 1965 musical was a big part of these proceedings, the show actually starting with the clip of the famous opening where Maria Von Trapp (Andrews of course) gorgeously sings the title song. And after the heartfelt standing ovation when Andrews was introduced as she sat at the dais in the middle of the room right next to family and old “chum” Carol Burnett there was a break for dinner, with the show then resuming with another familiar SOM song, “Do Re Mi” bringing on the five surviving actors who played the Von Trapp children who then saluted her from the stage before charmingly moving through the audience, a sing-a-long while surrounding Andrews at her table. Nicholas Hammond, Connie Turner, Angela Cartwright, Kym Karath, and Duane Chase may all be older now but next to the ageless Andrews it just like they were all back in Austria and time hadn’t passed at all. In fact Chase, who played Kurt the younger of the two boys actually went to Junior High and High School with me (I remember the day he told me he was leaving our music class to go to Innsbruck to make “a movie”) so we had our own nice reunion and at the Sunset Tower after party where he reminisced about how director Robert Wise would have to keep him from wandering off the set, something he said he often did to go exploring that memorable location.
It was indeed the perfect way to get things rolling as the tribute then highlighted the long career of Julie Andrews, now 86 and still going strong. She talked about much of it herself in a video interview that accompanied the presentation of vintage footage of her childhood through expertly curated clips of her numerous triumphs on stage in classics like My Fair Lady and Camelot, the movies of course, and television,something Burnett charmingly recalled. They worked together every 10 years or so in very special Specials like Julie And Carol At Carnegie Hall. A hilarious bit involving food smeared over each other get just as many laughs watching it now as when they actually did it. There was also much attention paid to her Oscar winning performance in Mary Poppins which she revealed was actually delayed after she had to tell Walt Disney she was pregnant. The studio waited for her and the rest is history, AFI had hoped to have her 96 year old co-star Dick Van Dyke on stage in person but instead he delivered some lovely remarks in a pre-taped greeting from home in Malibu. In other taped messages, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana DeBose and more offered their own thoughts on the star.
But on hand at the Dolby was a much more recent co-star, Steve Carell who tried to claim he had a longer history with Andrews than just the fact she played Gru’s mother in the Despicable Me animated franchise. “I was actually Kevin Von Trapp, their illegitimate son and cut from the movie,” he said before also claiming he was originally set as Bert for Poppins and Thoroughly Modern Millie before Andrews got rid of him. More seriously he summed her up as practically perfect in every way. ” She has grace and eloquence. She is kinder,funnier, and more charming than you could ever imagine. She is even better than you could hope she would be,” he said.
Of course much of the show was made up of clips of so many movies along the way including The Americanization Of Emily, Victor Victoria, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, Hawaii, S.O.B. The Princess Diaries, Darling Lili , Shrek The Third, and the other many collaborations with husband Blake Edwards including 1979’s hilarious 10 which made a star out of Bo Derek who returned the favor last night on stage as she saluted both of them, saying “Blake and Julie made seven films together. And as impressive as that is, it’s nothing compared to their 41 years of marriage…And for me and all of us, what they had onscreen and off was a perfect 10”.
Massive fan, as it turns out, Gwen Stefani practically geeked out in her comments about her idol as she said she couldn’t believe she was finally getting to meet her (her song “Wind It Up” features a “Lonely Goatherd” from Sound Of Music). A clear highlight of the evening was a stunning rendition of the classic Sound Of Music song “Edelweiss” by Cynthia Erivo. Andrews said it was her favorite even though she didn’t sing it in the film (Plummer did). Not a dry eye in the house after that one. After a little over an hour or so, Burnett appeared again to present the Life Achievement Award to Andrews who took the long walk to the stage, the applause never slowing down. Andrews in her acceptance speech graciously turned the spotlight on those who work behind the scenes, exhaustively listing every job on a set from camera operators, focus pullers, script supervisors and on and on. “The night reminds me with great clarity how many people are involved with making movies. What a huge collabortive effort it takes to bring film to the screen, My husband Blake never liked when people referred to filmmaking as the business or an industry. He insisted that film was an art form and should always be called that. And I know that is exactly the way the AFI feels also,” she said.
One special moment during the evening in the filmed interview with Andrews she demonstrated how she can still say ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ backwards. For the record: “Dociousaliexpisticfragicalirupus”!
Earlier just before the dinner break the 30th Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal Recipient award was presented to CODA writer/director Sian Heder who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar earlier this year, and made her own terrific speech last night at the Dolby in the very same room she won that Academy Award. She recalled her class at AFI had just seven women but what she learned has colored her career ever since. At the after party I caught up with her to re-live the very long Oscar season. She genuinely did not think she would win, only that she was certain Troy Kotsur would take Supporting Actor. She told me after that early award, Steven Spielberg, sitting directly in front of her, turned to her and ‘that’s one, two to go’ . referring to the film’s other two nominations for her and Best Picture. It was only at that moment she thought she better come up with something to actually say if he’s right. And he was. Her speech last night reinforced the fact she is the real deal. AFI should be proud.
And also for AFI this much anticipated evening was indeed not just “practically” , but pretty much perfect in every way.
As another participant, Hector Elizondo said, “In the words of Yogi Berra, ‘thanks for making this occasion necessary’.”